Should've 'Known' better

Should've 'Known' better

Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris explores Donald Rumsfeld's role in America's recent wars in ‘The Unknown Known'

By Carl Kozlowski 04/02/2014

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Throughout his 35-year film career, documentarian Errol Morris has displayed a knack for getting nearly anyone to say virtually anything. At his best, Morris is the kind of guy whose movies can help set free a man wrongly convicted of murder (as in "The Thin Blue Line") or unravel the twisted psyches of those responsible for the photographed torture of Iraqi war prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison ("Standard Operating Procedure").

Morris' greatest gift, however, may lie in his ability to get two of the steeliest men on earth - former US Defense Secretaries Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld - to break down and reveal why they participated in waging some of the most brutal wars in American history and whether they learned anything from their experiences leading those conflicts.

McNamara's sad admissions of guilt for the wrongs in Vietnam propelled 2004's "The Fog of War" all the way to a Best Documentary Feature Oscar, and Morris could be taking home another one next year for his newest effort, "The Unknown Known," featuring a more candid than usual Rumsfeld.

Focusing on a mix of Rumsfeld's strangely magnetic direct-to-camera conversational footage and historic video clips and photographs from "Rummy's" career as the Secretary of Defense under Presidents Ford, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, "The Unknown Known" gives Rumsfeld 102 minutes to win people over to his way of thinking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The result is disconcerting, not only because of the horrors Rumsfeld is glossing over but because he almost - almost - manages to win over viewers into thinking he's a totally decent guy who just happened to contrive battles that killed millions of innocent lives.

Morris sat down with Pasadena Weekly last week for an interview promoting the film, which opened Wednesday at the Laemmle Playhouse 7.

Pasadena Weekly: At the very end of the movie you ask Rumsfeld why he came to you to make this movie and he basically laughed and said, "Why the hell not?" So why did you want to make this documentary with him?

Errol Morris: I had made another film about a former Secretary of Defense, "Fog of War" with Robert McNarara. These are the two disastrous wars in my lifetime: Vietnam and Iraq. I felt compelled to interview Donald Rumsfeld as well, but not because they were in any way similar, save for the salient detail of presiding over the Defense Department in two truly disastrous episodes in American history.

So are these films bookends to each other, the opening and closing of the story of America's modern wars?

I wouldn't describe it simply as bookends. I wanted to learn why we go to war. I was looking for answers, for insight. I told him in our first meeting at his offices in Washington, that if he could explain why we went to war in Iraq, he would be rendering an important service and he agreed.

Was he a hard sell?
I would say that when comparing McNamara with Rumsfeld, McNamara was far more difficult. Rumsfeld was cooperative, charming, came to Boston many times, gave me over 30 hours of interviews and access to his memos, and offered to and did read on camera. He was unfailingly cooperative, except in the end I was left frustrated for many reasons.

Why frustrated?

Frustrated because, on one hand, Rumsfeld never answers questions, but I knew that going into this. Often it's like pressing the button on a vending machine and getting prefabricated answers, and more often than not he gives non-answers like evasions, misdirections and confusions. An example is when he used the phrase "the unknown known."

People forget he was asked by NBC what evidence do you have - the E word - that [Saddam Hussein] is in possession of WMD or if he's providing organizations with it. Rumsfeld's answer was a non-answer, using a jumble of phrases and ideas that end with "the unknown known." When he's pressed harder by reporters, Rumsfeld says "The absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence."

It was not a story about questions and answers. It was clear there would be no answers to questions, so I was looking for something else: insight into who he is, how he sees himself. He fails very often to provide any insight into the decisions he has made over the years.

How did your opinion toward him change?
I liked him, but found myself becoming horrified by him. He's in the Oval Office, OK. We see pictures of him on the day we are evacuating Saigon, with Ford. I asked him how Vietnam affected him. The answer? "Some things work out, some don't. That didn't."

Then we have a man who was deeply reflective and tortured by the past in McNamara in "The Fog of War." I don't know if he's the total opposite, but Rumsfeld's not reflective and is convinced of his own rectitude. The war for Donald Rumsfeld was justified and in his mind he has nothing to apologize for and regret. It's a story not of humility but of hubris.

You point out in the film that Rumsfeld wrote memos constantly, and he admits to dictating over 20,000 of them in six years under the most recent Bush. He has over a million memos from throughout his career stored in government archives, waiting to be read and a good many seen by the public. He calls them "snowflakes" of data. Why do you think he was obsessed with making them, especially after seeing what happened to Nixon for having tapes around all the time?

He's giving information, and yet not giving. There's this idea that a person as powerful as Donald Rumsfeld must be hiding something, but I was left with a different overall impression. I was left with this overall impression of vanity. The feeling I had was that he didn't care, was not engaged enough and that he thought "whether there were WMDs, or none, so what? Let's go to war."
He offers one evasion after another after another. What is so frightening about him and this movie and this episode in our history is that they've never been held accountable for what they've done and never will be and can go into their sunset years absolutely convinced of their rectitude. There's something nuts about that.

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